By BENJAMIN WEISER | New York Times | http://nyti.ms/1TfbLwD
DEC. 21, 2015 :: A two-year federal investigation has concluded that 83 percent of New York City’s public elementary schools are not “fully accessible” to children with disabilities, in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
In a blistering letter to the Education Department’s top lawyer on Monday, the office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that the investigation also showed that six school districts, which serve more than 50,000 elementary students, did not have a single school that is fully accessible.
“Nowhere is it more important to tear down the barriers to equal access than with respect to the education of our children,” Mr. Bharara’s office said. “But today, in New York City, 25 years after passage of the A.D.A., children with physical disabilities still do not have equal access to this most fundamental of rights.”
Mr. Bharara, in a brief statement, said his office had asked the city for a response to the findings, “including an outline and timeline of corrective actions that will remedy this unacceptable state of affairs.”
The 14-page letter gives the city 30 days to provide a response. The investigation had not been previously disclosed publicly.
Harry Hartfield, a spokesman for the Education Department, said the department was reviewing the letter and remained “committed to increasing the accessibility of our school buildings.”
Mr. Hartfield said that the department had been cooperating with the investigation, and that as part of its most recent capital plan, it had set aside $100 million for accessibility projects.
“Our goal is to ensure that all our students have access to a high-quality education, and a student’s disability should never get in the way of their access to a great school,” Mr. Hartfield said.
In the letter, which was addressed to the department’s general counsel, Courtenaye Jackson-Chase, the government said the disabilities law reflected a “comprehensive mandate” to eliminate what had become pervasive discrimination against people with disabilities, which denied them equal access to “critically important government services and programs.”
“Our investigation found that New York City’s elementary schools still are not ‘readily accessible to and usable by’ individuals with disabilities,” Mr. Bharara’s office wrote, “a population which includes not only students, but teachers and family members as well.”
The letter described the effect the violations had on families. Mr. Bharara’s office said that it had spoken with one family that had gone to what the prosecutors called “extreme measures” to keep a daughter enrolled in her local school, rather than subject her to a lengthy commute to the closest “accessible” school.
“A parent of this elementary school child was forced to travel to the school multiple times a day, every school day, in order to carry her child up and down stairs to her classroom, to the cafeteria, and to other areas of the school in which classes and programs were held,” the government wrote.
The alternative for children with mobility impairments was for the students to spend significant time traveling to a school that could accommodate their physical disabilities, the letter said.
“Requiring elementary students with disabilities to travel extensively at the beginning and end of each school day — a condition which is not imposed upon their peers — can impose particularly onerous physical demands on these children,” the government wrote.
The city had also not complied with the requirements of the disabilities law as to alterations made in schools since 1992, when the law went into effect, the letter noted.
In what it described as the most “glaring example of the city’s failure,” the letter cited the construction of an addition to a school in Queens in 2000 that was “riddled with inaccessible features,” like an elevator that was not the proper width, and noncompliant door knobs, bathroom “grab bars,” drinking fountains, sinks and faucets. The school also lacked visual alarms in classrooms, as required.
“The city’s failure to consider the needs of individuals with disabilities when upgrading and renovating its existing facilities is inexcusable,” the government said in the letter, which was signed by two senior lawyers in the office’s civil rights unit, Lara K. Eshkenazi and Jeannette A. Vargas.
Mr. Bharara’s letter was accompanied by a 73-page submission that offered a detailed list of violations in 11 schools across the boroughs, 10 of which the city had designated as “not accessible” and one it described as “functionally accessible.”
But the school designated as “functionally accessible” lacked “certain crucial accessible features,” the letter said, “raising a serious question as to the accuracy of the city’s categorizations.”
In each of the 11 schools, the report said, the investigation identified alterations made after 1992 that were not compliant with the A.D.A., including fire alarm systems, door hardware, toilet partitions, cafeteria seating, main office counters, library furniture and playground areas.
In its letter, Mr. Bharara’s office included four pages of what it said were the “minimum actions necessary” to remedy the violations. As an initial matter, the letter said, the city must develop a comprehensive plan to survey all elementary schools and recommend a systemwide remediation plan to address the lack of accessibility.
“The city should make it a priority to increase the accessibility of the first floors of school buildings and the rooms used by all students, teachers, parents or other visitors to the schools,” the letter said.
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